Soldiers in north-east India contracting AIDS

Himalayan News Service

Shillong, April 22:

Paramilitary soldier Bhabesh Kumar, who is posted in northeastern India, was shocked when told last weekend that he had tested HIV positive. “It was like the sky falling on my head,” Kumar (real name withheld) said in between sobs. He is among many paramilitary Assam Rifles troopers engaged in anti-insurgency operations in the strategic northeast who have been infected with the AIDS virus — a trend that has sent the alarm bells ringing. Boredom and stress are driving scores of soldiers in the region to resort to promiscuous sex, resulting in their contracting HIV. According to estimates, 32 Assam Rifles soldiers have died of the disease and 180 more are currently battling for life at two ‘treatment camps’ in the region after having tested HIV-positive.

The first HIV-positive among Assam Rifles soldiers was detected in 1992. “Working in isolated and hostile jungle terrain, fighting separatist guerrillas for a long period often leads to monotony and stress,” Kumar said. “So I tried the easy way of relaxation by going for sex with local women in the area without really knowing the consequences.” After random blood screening, Assam Rifles doctors have sounded an alert within the force saying the number of soldiers infected with HIV was alarming. “We cannot remain complacent with the trend of HIV infection among our troops assuming menacing proportions. Now we find more soldiers dying from HIV/AIDS than from bullets fired by militants,” Lt General Bhopinder Singh, Director General of Assam Rifles, said at its headquarters in Shillong.

“We admit this is a problem and needs to be tackled urgently before it spills out of control,” Singh said. The Assam Rifles today began a day-long HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in Shillong with a host of celebrities, including actor Shilpa Shetty and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah, taking part in the event. HIV infections are spreading among security forces deployed in the northeast — a region known for its violent insurgencies and ethnic conflicts. “In most cases we have found the soldiers mingling with locals and then going for unprotected sex to fight stress and fatigue,” an Assam Rifles doctor said. “Life away from families for a longer duration is one of the reasons for soldiers going for licentious sex.” Similar reports of HIV infection among the army and other paramilitary and state police forces

in the northeast have also come in.